Pacific Shores From Panama – Xauxa And Huancayo

OROYA proved, by the morning light, to be but a desolate little town set in a valley walled about by high grey mountains and drained by a saffron-tinted river that rushed madly toward the south. The natives peddling vegetables in the street or huddled about the station, the llama-trains in the corrals, the quaint music of a primitive harp that floated in the air gave us a foretaste of what we were now setting out to see: the market at Huancayo.

The sun did not top the great bald mountains until nine o’clock, and at ten we drew out of the station en route for Xauxa. The track followed the course of the Mantaro River, descending, as it did so, to a succession of lower valleys, one after another, that grew richer and more productive as we sped along. Here, under this tropical sun, ten to eleven thousand feet seems to be about the right altitude. This the Incas realised, for the principal seats of their civilisation lay in these inland valleys hemmed in by the mighty Cordillera.

Now, at the end of the rainy season (their March corresponds to our September), all was lovely and green. Fields of alfalfa succeeded to barley patches, the rocky ledges glowed with yellow marguerites, and spans of big white oxen dragged primitive wooden ploughs through the earth, softened by rains. In more arid spots a lonely shepherdess would sit with her dog watching her grazing herd. Cattle and sheep raising is the chief industry of the country, for the hay and grass continually resows itself.

At the end of the valley lay Llocllapampa, an old Quichua town, set in olive-groves and fields of wild mustard. Beyond it we ran alongside of a cactus-bordered road that from time to time crossed torrents pouring down from the mountains to swell the mighty Amazon. This was the sort of highway that Pizarro followed when he marched upon Cuzco from Caxamarca, and these were the very valleys through which he passed, whose simple natives stood amazed at his men of steel bestriding great animals beside which their llamas looked small and tame indeed.

At one point in our ride some sheep and cattle were grazing along the track and two mounted herdsmen in vivid ponchos came to round them up, galloping across a frail bridge that rocked and swayed under the weight of their horses, being slung across the chasm only by means of willow withes like those the Incas used to twist.

But the Spanish have definitely imposed their imprint on the land. The pink-roofed villages that hug the hillsides are true bits of Spain; the cemeteries, walled about and towered at the corners, are Hispanic in character, and the haciendas are all of the Spanish type.

Now the country grew wild and treeless again, and we passed through a gorge mined out by water like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. And then, in a veritable oasis of eucalyptus groves, lying in the broad valley whose richness was so often mentioned by the ancient chroniclers, we came upon Xauxa sunning its pink-tiled roofs in the afternoon light.

The station lies just beyond the town, and is walled about and enclosed by gates like most of the principal depots along the Peruvian railways. So it was with pleasant anticipation that we looked forward to a peaceful night in our comfortable car out under the stars in the country.

Dazzling white houses, whose broad eaves stretch out to shade the narrow sidewalks, border the streets that lead to the plaza—a vast square out of all proportion to the low buildings that surround it and to the market uses to which it is put. It was none the less picturesque with its wriggling lines of vendors squatting in the shade of their primitive parasols and its churches and public buildings ranged about it.

The most important church is a large edifice of no special architectural interest, being a sort of echo of the Cathedral of Lima. But its interior has escaped restoration and makes a dignified appearance with its white walls and single barrel-vault that frame a superb reredos occupying the entire east end of the church—one of those amazing structures, gilded, painted, and ornamented with statues, pictures, columns, and cornices that, in this case, are held well within bounds, restrained, and fretted by the rich but flat detail of the plateresque rather than the wan-ton exuberance of the baroque. What a treasure-trove for some museum, this fine piece of Spanish art hidden in the mountains of Peru !

With some difficulty we found a crazy old carriage to drive us out to call upon a charming Spanish family who possess a villa on the banks of a lake some distance down the valley. The rough road led off through lanes of century plants into the open country.

Now we could see the hills behind the town crowned with Inca ruins—sole remnants of the very considerable Indian town that once played so conspicuous a part in the Wars of the Conquest and the civil wars that followed. Here, along the Mantaro, the Inca warriors, relying upon the width of the river as a barrier, made their first determined stand against Pizarro during his march upon Cuzco. But the impetuosity of the Spanish riders, whose horses plunged into the stream, swimming and wading to the opposite bank, soon put them to rout and sent them fleeing toward the mountains.

Here, too, at Xauxa, Pizarro spent many anxious days awaiting news of De Soto, sent ahead to reconnoitre; and, further to add to his troubles, his creature, the young Inca Toparca, whom he had set upon the throne of Atahualpa, died, a victim, it was supposed, of poison.

The ride to the lake gave us a pretty glimpse of this valley of Xauxa with its sheep grazing in the meadows, its long files of eucalypti and clusters of tincurals, and its flights of beautiful birds, eddying and dipping and soaring aloft in brilliant yellow clouds—principally hilgueros and trigueros—that, when they alighted in the cactus-hedges, sang as sweetly as canaries.

The villa that we visited was set upon the very waters of the lake, the long reeds brushing the veranda as they bowed in the breeze. The air was balmy, like a lovely day in spring—soft, yet with a delicious tang in it. A little removed from the shore, a group of flamingoes stood, pink and rosy, one-legged in the water. The children were presented for our inspection; one of the señoritas “touched” the piano; we were offered refreshments, and then before sunset started back for the town.

At dawn next morning I felt a bump and then realised that we were moving. Grey silhouettes of trees and fainter silhouettes of mountains flitted past the window.

We had been anxious to see the great market at Huancayo, and, as there is no train on Sunday morning, a special engine had been sent up for our car, so that we pulled in to the station before seven o’clock.

In spite of the early hour all was in a bustle, and when we walked into the main plaza, what a sight met our eyes ! This plaza, surrounded by low houses, forms a part, as it were, of a main street broad enough for a metropolitan boulevard, yet it and the square were a compact, seething mass of humanity and beasts. They told us that there were between ten and twelve thousand Indians at that morning’s market, and I fully believe it.

In the great square itself the men stood about for the most part, bartering and talking, arrayed in gaudy ponchos and wide-rimmed hats. The women were sitting in circular groups upon the ground, eating their morning meal of steaming food, dipping it out of earthen vessels with the spoons whose handles pin their shawls at the shoulder like the Roman agrafes, or they squatted in long lines from end to end of the plaza, forming, with their bright shawls, and their vivid wares wrapped in woven bags and blankets, a huge crazy quilt covering every foot of available space.

It was a bewildering scene indeed, this multitude of bright colours, relieved against the low houses in whose tiendas men and women sat drinking those tiny glasses filled apparently with water, but in reality with the fiery alcohol, almost pure, distilled on the sugar plantations along the coast. At one end stood a great mud-coloured ruin—of a church, I think, with sightless windows and an open portal—around whose base great herds of llamas and donkeys stood gathered in picturesque confusion. Down the street came water-carriers, staggering along among vendors of coca and bright aniline dyes that would delight a post-impressionist’s heart, while along the curbs sat the sellers of ollas and drinking-gourds, of ponchos and saddles, of yellow earthen pottery and big vessels for cooking the chupe, their national dish.

Our wanderings finally brought us to the far end of the main street just in time to see the garrison, a battalion of infantry, march out of its barracks with colours flying and headed by its band. The officers were Peruvians of Spanish descent, but the rank and file seemed entirely of Indian origin. They marched well, however, and looked like neat and self-respecting soldiers. When I asked why they paraded thus during the full market, I was told that every Sunday this was done to stimulate interest in the army and show the Indian youths what fine fellows they would be when their time came for military service.

Half an hour later the cracked bells of the church began to chime, and we walked back to the little square in front of it. Here, nearly twelve thousand feet above the sea, sweet-peas and calla lilies, roses, dahlias, and geraniums were blazing in a perfect riot of colour. Inside the church all was hushed and still. Women in black rebosos, or gaily coloured shawls, sat or knelt upon the stone floor, and a crowd of men stood near the high altar where three officiants were celebrating low mass.

It was a picture of quiet dignity, this church interior, the groups silhouetting handsomely against the pale-tinted walls and the gilded side-altars, the alcaldes from the mountain villages standing apart, leaning upon their long canes bound about with silver, badges of the mayor’s office. As the women removed their hats to cover their heads with shawls, coca leaves fell fluttering to the ground, and we noticed many of them wearing these same leaves pasted on their temples to deaden headaches.

We were asked by the mayor of the city to go informally with him to the Club Nacional, my wife being included in the invitation, though she was the only lady present. We enjoyed the experience, especially the Incaic music that followed, played by an Indian, a descendant of the old stock. It was our first opportunity to hear these weird melodies, so sad, so plaintive in tone, so strange in their syncopations, that were to follow us wherever we went in the mountains. He played, turn by turn, the old Inca dances, the yaravis sung by the women, and the gay marmeras danced nowadays by the common people all over Peru. What an interesting opera could be woven upon these themes, with the romantic history of the Incas and the scenery of the country and quaint customs of these mountain people as a background !

Some of the Indian women are quite handsome, with their straight noses, full lips, and bronze-coloured skin, smooth and soft, that glistens in the sun. The men, too, have the hardy type of mountaineers: their legs bare, fine, and strong, their chests deep, and their heads erect. Though dirty person-ally, their town is surprisingly clean for an isolated mountain community.

The alcalde dined with us that evening, and we had an interesting discussion of Peruvian politics.

We had half planned to visit Santa Rosa de Ocopa, a monastery in the mountains, upon our return journey; but that did not prove feasible, so we proceeded directly back to Oroya, at which station we arrived several hours behind our schedule. To this fact, however, we owed one of the most wonderful impressions of our entire trip: the crossing of the pass at sunset.

As we emerged from the Galera tunnel that pierces Mount Meiggs at the top of the grade, nearly sixteen thousand feet above the sea, great clouds piled high about the summits of the mountains, whose peaks, copper, ashen, silver, or coral, stood glistening with eternal glaciers. As we started down the grade the evening mists began to rise, hurrying upward from gorge, valley, and precipice to swell the gathering vapours—caught by winds and air currents, eddying hither and thither like the fumes from a witch’s caldron. In these flying, ghost-like forms lakes appeared and disappeared from time to time, hanging suspended, as it were, in mid-air.

Embattled peaks rose enormous through the fog, their bulk doubled by the mist, just as the depth of the gorges was rendered doubly terrifying by the mystery of bottomless pits and precipices whose bases were swallowed in swirling vapours.

As we descended, the sun, with its last rays, shot shafts of lurid light through these scurrying mists that thus became great tongues of fire, licking the mountains like the flames of a giant conflagration—a Walhalla, a glorious apotheosis to this wonderful ride in the Andes.

We passed the night at Matucana, half-way down the grade, and in the morning came down to Lima, to sea-level and the warmth of banana groves, jasmine, and heliotrope after the snow and ice of the mountains.