Pacific Shores From Panama – To Arequipa

Our visit at Santa Barbara had come to an end. Early Sunday morning we drove down to the port where in the offing lay the Panama, that was to take us on down the coast. Our host put us off in the same lancha that had brought us ashore, the agent accompanied us to the ship and presented us to the captain, and by ten o’clock we had weighed anchor. By good fortune I found among the passengers a man I had already met, Dr. G—–, rector of the University of Cuzco, Peru’s second oldest seat of learning, and a friend of his, a writer and archaeologist of distinction. In the ship’s saloon we talked over the interest of the trip that lay before us, and, to whet our appetite, Senor C showed us some priceless picture cloths of pre-Inca design —condor, puma, and serpents intertwined—that he had just unearthed somewhere near Ica.

In the afternoon we sighted the Chincha Islands, white, flat-topped, like half-melted icebergs, celebrated for their guano deposits, a semicircle of them off Pisco fringing the horizon.

Pisco’s gaily painted houses soon emerged from the sea and we cast anchor. Dark Indian women came aboard selling the luscious Italia grapes for which the valley is noted, and from which is made the Italia brandy and the “pisco,” that alcoholic beverage so much used along the coast, some of it so strong that, to quote a graphic expression that I heard, “it would make a rabbit fight a bulldog.”

Pisco scarcely repaid us for the visit ashore. The town itself lies too far away to be conveniently visited in a few hours. So we had to content ourselves with the settlement along the beach—a series of bath-houses and small hotels like some miniature Coney Island. We stopped next day at another forlorn port, Chala by name, with a flimsy wooden church stuck in a plaza of shifting sand and a few frame houses set upon the same unstable foundation.

What the shore lacked in interest the sea made up for. It literally teemed with life. Sea-lions bobbed their heads up and down upon its surface; schools of dolphins frolicked about, while flocks of shags and murres hovered over them; long files of pelicans lazily flapped their way toward the guano-coated rocks behind which purplish mountains now rose abruptly from the sea. All afternoon we coasted near the shore and toward night enjoyed a splendid sunset.

Early next morning the clang of the engine bell and the clank of the mooring-chains told us we had anchored. In the grey dawn the shore looked not unlike Salaverry, but a larger town lay spread upon the cliffs half hidden in the haze of spindrift. The Pacific rollers thundered in long surges against the rocks, and -the boats coming out to meet us bounced like corks upon the sea. Yet it was an exceptionally calm morning for Mollendo, so we were told! As I was choosing a fletero among the various brigands who presented themselves to ferry us ashore, a Spaniard stepped up and presented his card—an official from the Southern Railways of Peru.

He soon had us installed in his stanch boat, and with the aid of a peppery tug, the first I had seen at the small ports of the coast, we were cutting our way through the water while the other boats were still bobbing about by the steamer’s side.

Just before we boarded our train a curious incident occurred.

A little Indian boy, some six or seven years old, approached us and, with tears in his eyes and his voice choked with sobs, asked to become our chico, our boy—literally and of his own free-will giving him-self to us for life. His tale was pitiful indeed. An aunt had brought him down from the mountains and had left him here by the coast and disappeared, whether by boat or train he did not know. We were quite touched by his appeal, and had it not been for the friend who accompanied us—a Peruvian-born—I do not know what might not have happened. He assured us, however, that the boy was shamming, that he wanted to go back to the mountains, to be sure, but that as soon as he got a favourable opportunity he would run away; in fact, that if we put him in the second-class coach we should never see him when we arrived; that this sort of appeal to strangers was a regular thing, and so on.

Who was right I do not know. But I do know that boys of this age and even younger, and girls, too, of the inferior Indian race, are attached to the person of each young Peruvian child of the upper class and brought up with them for life. We constantly saw such little slaves carrying coats or bundles or umbrellas behind their little masters, who walked ahead with their parents—a pernicious custom, to my mind, breeding arrogance, insolence, and a habit of idleness in the better-born children. We spoke to the station-master about the little waif and he promised to look out for him. I hope he did.

We pulled out at the tail of the afternoon passenger promptly on time, skirted the shore for a bit to the bathing resorts of Ensenada and Mejia, and then struck for the hills and Arequipa.

The road ascends by a series of loops and curves among rounded foot-hills whose fat flanks are covered only with a tough-looking herb, dull brown and in spots green. Now and then we caught glimpses of one of those verdant valleys that lie tucked away down by the coast. This soon passed from sight, however, and at an elevation of about a thousand metres we emerged onto a succession of broad table-lands backed by blue mountains, whose gorges are filled with white sand that, at a distance, looks like snow-patches.

As we proceeded these sandy drifts approached the track, sometimes descending the mountains in long ridges like giant reptiles’ tails, sometimes forming pools or hillocks, but oftenest of all piling up in those strange sand-crescents that are one of the phenomena of the region.

These crescents are quite perfect in form, highest and, broadest at the centre, diminishing with perfect regularity both in height and thickness toward the two horns that curve a bit inward like the Turkish moon. Hundreds of them lie spotted over this table-land, each with its horns pointed eastward, each moving like clockwork in the same direction. For they move. Their tiny white particles, that hum in the heat, are fanned by the wind and chased over the summit, dropping down on the other side. Thus, particle by particle, irresistibly they pursue their onward march. They must be shovelled from the railroads like snow-drifts, though we were told that a few large stones placed upon them would break them up and prevent their movement.

The stations along these plateaus are but tiny oases—palms, fruit trees, flowers set in a waterless waste. After San Jose you begin to climb again through salmon-tinted mountains, stratified and shaded like those of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Deep down in their chasms narrow valleys appear—green, rich meadows where cattle graze and Indian bamboo huts nestle by the rivulets.

At Vitor, where the women were selling delicious grapes by the station, we had reached an altitude of five thousand feet and soon could look across the broad upper plateau that now spread out before us. At a turn of the road in the distance Chachani and El Misti, the two Andean sentinels, suddenly stood revealed in all the glory of their icy summits, nearly twenty thousand feet above the sea!

The scenery now became remarkable—grand.

At times we looked deep into the valley of the Chili, with its verdant fields and Indian villages set in clusters of banana palms; at others into arid chasms where the blue evening shadows were slowly creeping upward while the coppery sunlight still flickered on the upper walls. And at each turn we obtained new views of the two mountain giants that marked our destination and that grew nearer and ever nearer, now rosy in the evening glow.

The short twilight had deepened. Tingo’s lights burst forth in the semi-darkness, and in ten minutes we pulled into the station at Arequipa.