Pacific Shores From Panama – The Land Of The Incas

AS you ascend from Arequipa to cross the backbone of the Andes on this Southern Railway of Peru, leaving behind the dreary waste-lands of the upper Cordilleras, devoid of life and vegetation except for the pajonal, the only grass that clothes the highest plateaus with its stubby golden carpet, where no bit of green has rested the eye since the lovely valley of the Chili faded from view and the eternal snows of Chachani and Misti dropped lower and lower toward the horizon; after topping the pass at Crucero Alto, some fifteen thousand feet above the sea, you descend the eastward side by loops and gradients about two thousand feet or more. Vicuñas, the sole inhabitants of these mountain solitudes, graze in the ychu grass by the tracks, and at lower levels llamas and sheep.

The flocks and herds increase in size as you descend. Occasionally clusters of huts appear in whose doorways women are seated weaving ponchos, their mouths muffled against the icy breeze. A chain of lakes now borders the road, one bright and peaceful, the next shaded by heavy clouds, dark, tragic as the tarn of the House of Usher. Snowpeaks close in the vista to the left, while ahead opens a broad valley, the great basin of Lake Titicaca.

You quickly realise that you are entering another world—a strange world shut off from the remainder of our planet by every barrier that nature could de-vise. To the east tower the White Cordillera, beyond which moulder the miasmic jungles of the Montaña; to the west rise the snowy altitudes we have just traversed. Between these two ranges lie a succession of highland valleys some ten to thirteen thousand feet above the sea, each separated from the other by nudos, or knots, of lesser transverse chains of mountains.

These valleys in our latitudes would be covered with eternal snow. Here, under the tropics, they blossom with all the products of the temperate zone, enjoying a cool, invigorating climate and supporting a large population of Indians.

They constituted the heart of the ancient empire of the Incas, that amazing despotism that stunned the Spanish conquerors with the wisdom of its institutions, the splendour and the size of its buildings, the rich produce of its fields, and, above all, by the wealth of its mines of gold and silver and its amassed riches of centuries. When the Spaniard came, Huayna Capac had already extended his dominions as far north as Quito and as far south as the land of the Araucanian Indians of Chili. Even most of the savage tribes of the Montaña owed him allegiance, and only the Pacific bounded his territories to the westward. The centre of his empire lay in these high plateaus of the Andes—the fair and fertile valleys of Huaylas and Vilcanota, the bare and bleak plains of Cerro de Pasco and Titicaca’s basin.

We were now entering the last-named, the most southern of the four, and were then to turn northward to visit the Inca capital, Cuzco, the navel of the kingdom, as its Quichua name signifies.

It was toward the end of the rainy season. So, when we started from Juliaca in the morning the broad valley lay flecked with numerous pools of water that reflected the deep blue of the sky mingled with the fleecy white of the small clouds that floated overhead. The air, after the night’s rain, was of an indescribable rarity and purity, pellucid; so clear, indeed, that the distant Cordilleras showed every varied marking of their sharp ridges and deep quebradas. Now and then, as we looked backward, Titicaca came into view, reflecting the hills of indigo blue that surround it.

This lake is intimately connected with all the tales and legends of the Incas. In fact, the usually accepted story of the origin of their race makes it spring from the waters of this very lake. Garcilasso de la Vega, himself a descendant of the Incas of the royal line, gives us a clear version of the story.

Inti, the Sun-God, ashamed of the barbarous practices of the primitive human beings who then inhabited the globe, taking pity upon them, sent to earth his two children, Manco Capac and his sister-wife, Mama Oello (Children of the Sun, as their descendants, the Incas, always styled themselves), causing them to rise from Titicaca and go forth to instruct the people: he in government and the arts of war and husbandry; she in weaving and spinning—his Coya, or queen of women, as he was king of men.

Intl thus admonished them. “‘Tis I,” said he, “who warm the earth and its inhabitants when they are cold, fertilise their fields and their pastures; who fructify their trees, multiply their flocks; who send them rain and fine weather in season. I make the tour of the world each day to see what is needful for its happiness. I reserve for myself only the pleasure of seeing it happy. Go, do likewise. Be happy if thou canst, but, above all, try to make other people happy.”

He gave them, too, a “barrilla de oro” of half a yard in length and two fingers in thickness that they were to take with them. They were to pursue their journey until this golden wedge, of its own accord, should sink into the earth, at which spot they were to establish the capital of their kingdom. Accordingly, they set forth upon their wanderings, never stopping until they reached the valley of Cuzco, where the golden wedge sank into the earth and disappeared.

We were now following their footsteps from Titicaca’s shore to this same valley. The fields were alive with flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and llamas; here and there groups of adobe huts thatched with straw afforded shelter for their keepers. The names of the stations told us we were approaching the Quichua country, for, instead of the familiar San Miguel or San Jose, we read Calapuja, Tirapata, Ayaviri, and Chuquibambilla. Quichua was the ancient tongue of the Inca court, imitated by all the conquered nations until it became the fashionable language, the most elegant of the South American tongues. It is still the spoken language of the Peruvian Indian.

Our train had now begun to climb, mounting through bleak pastures until we reached La Raya, the summit of one of those knots of mountains that connect the two main ranges of the Andes. The scenery was magnificent. We were shut in by great peaks set in fields of moss or grass that encircle their mighty cones, whose heads reach the realms of eternal silence and eternal snow.

Two little streams rise at the top of the pass. One, the Puchara, starts down the valley we had just ascended, finally to reach the Pacific; the other becomes the Vilcanota that, gathering strength as it proceeds, goes to swell the mighty Amazon, emptying into the Atlantic some three thousand miles or more away.

As we descended beside its bubbling waters—so soon, alas, to loose their crystal pureness—a beautiful valley opened before us, hemmed in by frowning mountains, the first of the valleys that the Incas chose as the central seat of their civilisation. The mountain slopes they terraced into rich andenes; they irrigated their fields and gardens, fortified their crags, and dotted their meadows with villages and cities. At the far end they built Cuzco, their capital, the great shrine of their deity the Sun, the venerated object of their pilgrimage. As Mecca is to the Mussulman, or Rome to the Catholic, so was Cuzco to the Inca.

These valleys still remain well-tilled, their fields of wheat and barley alternating with patches of quinoa, the hardy grain that is indigenous to these mountain plains, their staple of life, thriving at an elevation of thirteen thousand feet.

Before six o’clock we pulled into the station at Sicuani, there to remain for the night.

Our itinerary had been planned with this in view, for Sicuani’s Sunday-morning market is the most notable in all the region. This being Saturday evening, the llama trains were already arriving. After dinner, as we walked about the town, we saw whole troops of these strange beasts being driven into the corrals, craning their long necks, their ears tilted for-ward, suspicious, always on the alert, afraid to enter unknown enclosures.

As we crossed the two squares on our return to our car, from the tiendas and chinganas that surround them came sad strains of music, sometimes a voice singing, sometimes a reedy flute plaintively crooning, sometimes a rude guitar strumming those sad yaravis, the sole musical expression of the Andean Indian—minor melodies, sad in theme and modulation, strange in their wilful syncopations, fitly voicing the melancholy, the sorrow of a down-trodden race.

The environment of the Inca Indian has had great influence upon his temperament. He combines to a marked degree the nature of the easy-going inhabitant of the tropics with the hardihood and fortitude and capacity for toil of the mountaineer. On the bleak punas of this upper world of his, this “roof of , the earth,” as it has been called, his inscrutable expression, his silences, and his quiet melancholy ac-cord well with the mysteries of the country.

We were out early next morning, and the sun had not yet risen from behind the mountains, though the sky was bright, as we turned into the plaza.

Already it was full of people. Here was the movement of the market-place, the bustle of the traders. But how quiet! Only silent groups stood about. They smiled once in a while, but quickly grew grave again; they scarcely ever laughed. As we listened, the singing of the birds—the numerous trigueras the human voices!

The natives were constantly arriving. The sky grew brighter and brighter, and suddenly the fiery orb of the sun shot above the mountains and darted its rays in long shafts of light down upon the marketplace. The chill of the early morning was dispelled as if by magic. Small wonder that the Incas in their bleak, fireless mountain homes worshipped him as their chief deity !

And now, under his effulgence, the beauty of this Sunday-morning market became apparent. The houses around the plaza, hitherto grey and uninteresting, now gleamed white or pale blue or caught golden reflections under their broad eaves and balconies from the yellow dust of the roadways. Upon the surrounding hill-slopes flocks of llamas and trains of donkeys stood silhouetted with silver awaiting a purchaser.

And the costumes ! The men’s were undoubtedly the finest. Their ponchos, or blankets, reaching to the knees, were woven in rich patterns and ornamented with coloured fringes; their sturdy, sun-browned calves and feet were bare or protected only by rude sandals; upon their heads they wore tight-fitting caps with ear-flaps, woven, too, in intricate designs like those of the poncho but far finer, the best being made of the beautiful vicuña wool, which, under the Incas, was reserved for the nobility alone. Their hair, long, black, and thick, showed front and back, and was clipped round, giving to their clear-cut features and aquiline noses the appearance of those splendid bronze heads modelled by Donatello and his school.

The dominant colour note was red—scarlet, varying through all the gamut of rose and warmed by intervening stripes of undyed ochre wool.

The women wore the bright montero, a gay, broad-brimmed hat almost devoid of crown, ornamented with gold or silver galloon, and their principal garment was the llicha or mantle in which they draped themselves. Before them, spread upon the ground, lay the various strange eatables that they sell: the dried birds and cockroaches; the chuno, or white potato (do you realise that we owe our common potato to these highlands of Peru?), that, boiled with bits of fish or meat, makes the chupe, their national dish; the roundish grains of the quinoa; the charqui, or jerked meat made of venison or vicuña steaks; the bags of coca leaves that they chew to deaden their senses and efface the effect of cold, hunger, and fatigue as they take their almost superhuman walks.

We started on for Cuzco in the morning, expecting to reach it by night. But fate willed otherwise, as you shall see.

Along the roads the Indians were hurrying, some afoot, some on donkey-back, and once in a while we passed a single horseman draped in his ample poncho. Women, too, walked briskly with babies or incredibly large bundles upon their backs, picking their skirts high above their knees to ford the streams and pools.

Beyond San Pablo we could make out the ruins of the great temple of Viracocha, off to the right, half-hidden in a rocky country. Each station, as we passed, was full of people, the train being still a novelty, an object of interest. The villages became richer. Pottery roofs supplanted the flimsy thatch; substantial walls took the place of rude adobe. The now roaring Vilcanota was spanned, as at Quiquijana, by strong stone bridges. The fields were rich and the hills terraced far up toward their summits.

The Incas surpassed all the American races as husbandmen. Agriculture was the key-note of their peaceful civilisation. The Inca himself set an example to his subjects by going out each year to the fields upon one of the great festivals and turning the sod with a golden plough. One-third of all the land was reserved for him (that is, for government), one-third for the practices of religion, and the remaining third was equally distributed among the people. Each man upon his marriage was given an extra piece and likewise upon the birth of each child, twice as much for a boy as for a girl. Besides cultivating his own portion, he was obliged to work one-third of his time upon the Inca’s land and one-third upon the Sun’s. Thus, like bees, they droned for their Inca in a sort of socialistic equality. By patient toil and the force of numbers, combined with skilful irrigation and fertilising (even the use of guano was known to them), they brought these highland valleys and terraced hills to a state of productiveness that they have never , since attained under their Spanish conquerors.

Most of the great work of the Incas—their mighty roads that connected Quito with Cuzco; their aqueducts, sometimes hundreds of miles in length; their rich andenes—have fallen to ruin, but enough of them remain to put to shame the feeble efforts of their conquerors.

About four hours beyond Sicuani the train stopped at a place called Urcos. Upon one side of the track stood the station; upon the other a sort of fondaeating-house and lodgings combined. No town was in sight. The minutes passed by, and presently men began to drop off and ask questions of the conductor. His replies were evasive. An hour passed, and we were told that, owing to some trouble on the road ahead, we should remain where we were till evening. So, having nothing better to do, we set out to find the town.

Happy thought! For no sooner had we climbed a wide path, a sort of causeway lined on both sides with giant cacti of all descriptions, than we saw a picturesque red-roofed village ahead of us. We were walking toward the sun, and the llamas and people coming down toward us were edged with gold and silver as the brilliant light caught the long nap of their woolly garments and fringes. We soon reached the first mud-built house sand stumbled up the winding, rock-paved streets, climbing higher and higher toward glimpses of gleaming white walls ahead.

Suddenly we turned into the village green, for such it truly was, a perfect pastoral hidden in this mountain valley. Eight giant trees (pisonays, I think they are called) shaded its broad expanse, their gnarled trunks girdled with stone seats, their lustrous leaves shining and sparkling in the sunlight. In the shadows which they cast, groups of Indian women squatted with their children, and over by the village pump another group quietly gossiped. An old Spaniard, in his threadbare black coat and flashy tie, returned slowly from mass. A broad flight of steps, ornamented with a tall stone crucifix, rose at the farthest end and led up to the church, whose single lava-built tower, dark and rich in tone, contrasted pleasantly with the white arcades that adjoined it. The long afternoon shadows, the ruddy glow of the scarlet costumes, the mighty hills, fat-flanked, gouged by landslides, yet tilled to their very summits, composed a charming picture, and when we had enjoyed it for some time we mounted the steps to the church.

It, too, well repaid our visit. Its walls and ceiling, though white, are almost completely covered with stencils, executed apparently by Indians, like those of the California missions, but far richer in design and bolder and more vigorous in pattern, and particularly powerful in tone. They form the background for a multitude of objects: paintings, not very good, to be sure, but following the fine old Hispanic tradition and set in their original richly carved and gilded frames; polychrome statues of saints and martyrs in the golden niches of side altars, mingled with bits of altar-cloths and laces and old Spanish mirrors. The vandal hand of no city antiquary has as yet defiled this little treasure-house. May my pen never guide one thither!

As we emerged from the portal a small voice piped up and asked if we should like to see the lake.

The Lake of Urcos? Why had that name a familiar sound? Guided by our small conductor, we soon came upon it set like lovely Nemi in its round volcanic basin, a mirror reflecting the azure sky. The Lake of Urcos? I was still puzzled, but soon had solved the mystery.

Now I remembered the passage in Garcilasso. Huayna Capac, last of the great Incas, upon the birth of the son that was to succeed him, caused to be forged a chain of gold, long enough, we are told, to stretch around the great square at Cuzco. And the Inca named his son Huascar, a chain. At the approach of the Spaniards this triumph of the gold-smith’s art, a veritable fortune, was thrown, according to common belief, into this Lake of Urcos. Various attempts have been made to dredge its waters and recover the buried treasure, but as yet all in vain—again reminding us of Nemi and its golden barge of Nero.

When we returned to the station we found a telegram from the superintendent at Arequipa telling us that we should be obliged to remain at Urcos all night owing to a landslide on the road ahead.

Now were we glad, indeed, of our private car, for the rest of the passengers had to make the best of it in the crowded quarters of the fonda, four in a room.

The cholos slept upon the benches of their second-class coach. Faithful old Prudenzio, our Indian cook, had been off shopping in the town and we enjoyed our good dinner sitting by the window watching the natives with their long trains of llamas or donkeys making their way up the steep pathways that lead to their mountain homes.

Where do they dwell? Neither house nor village was visible upon these rocky heights, yet doubtless hidden within their defiles nestle lonely huts protected from wintry winds.

The water-carriers staggered toward the village under the weight of their earthen ollas; the sad strains of a yaravi floated over the meadows; the Vilcanota, rushing to swell the Amazon, murmured in the distance; the stars shone resplendent in the purity of the mountain air. What a happy day, unplanned and unpremeditated, we had spent quite by chance in this peaceful country-side—this wonderful land of the Incas!

But next morning, when told that we should not start for Cuzco until noon, I began to be anxious. We were at the beginning of Holy Week, and I had been especially planning to reach the Inca capital on this particular day, the feast of Our Lord of the Earthquakes—the principal Indian festival of the year. The great procession was to leave the cathedral at four o’clock, and Urcos is more than two hours’ ride from Cuzco. We spent the morning sketching in the village, however, and in visiting a hospitable Spanish family, who asked us in (strangers are a rarity, indeed, in Urcos) to regale us with sweet-meats and coffee. A reassuring telegram awaited us upon our return to the station, telling us that we should leave by one o’clock. All might yet be well.

And at one we left. A quick trip through a succession of lovely valleys, where haciendas with long arcades sat embowered in eucalyptus groves, brought us to the considerable town of San Jeronimo, really a suburb of Cuzco.

The railroad here makes an ascent, and at each curve of the road we tried to obtain our first glimpse of this sacred city of the Incas. At last, at a turning, there it lay with its domes and towers, its ring of encircling mountains, its red-roofed houses lying flat along its regular streets.