Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

In the Fold of a SACRED SUMMIT

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

In the Fold of a SACRED SUMMIT

Article excerpt

A trekker on a little-known route to Ausangate mountain in Peru's southeastern cordillera marvels at the natural wonders and serenity of daily life

AS WE HIKE THROUGH THE HIGH MOUNTAINS, large turquoise-blue and emerald lakes gradually come into view, bringing the otherwise barren landscape to life; huge rocky mesas thrust up out of the depths of the earth like weird fingernails scratching at the sky. Sturdy masses of perpetual ice, nearly twenty thousand feet high, form one of the most imposing cordilleras on the planet. This is the Vilcanota mountain chain, where Ausangate and Cayangate, two sacred apus, or ancestral mountains of Peru, dominate the life of the Andean people.

Romario Huaman Quispe, my guide, has a forthright and open gaze. He can make a hot fire with thatching grass and manure when the afternoon turns cold and prepare a variety of meals. At barely eighteen years of age, he has learned how to survive in those inhospitable conditions, enduring below-zero temperatures in winter. He has learned to respect the cycles of nature and protect the animal herd, the most precious possession of Andean people, as if it were gold.

Early the next day, squatting by the fire with my hands outstretched to its warmth, I look around the interior of Romario's rustic house. The small windows are mere vents, and the walls covered with countless clippings from newspapers and magazines. The main room, built of stones, clay, and plaster, contains some basic cooking utensils, homemade ropes, and a table carved from a large piece of local stone. At the back is a small door that one must stoop to enter, leading to a warm bedroom where occupants sleep on a raised section of floor covered with a pile of sheep and Ilama skins. Even on a bright sunny day, houses in the high Andes are dark, their only light coming from a stove and some oil lamps. The thatched ceilings, which have absorbed years of smoke and endless tales told by the fire, may display only a string of hanging onions or a forgotten piece of handiwork.

Romario's mother, kneeling, mechanically cuts up potatoes and prepares food for her family. Like the vast majority of older generations in the altiplano, she speaks only Quechua. The firelight illuminates her wrinkled face. A playful little guinea pig rests his furry head on my knee, while others chase around the pots, never imagining they would one day become a meal. Romario laughs, saying, "they're the pets of the household. We bring them from Tinqui and feed them until they're big enough for the pot. They taste better than rabbit."

It is not yet light, and as we wait for the dawn we drink a tea of coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness. At last it is time to begin our journey to Comercocha, or Green Lake, one of the many marvels along this little-known route. It would take us four or five hours to walk there, all depending on the condition of the path. "Last year there were landslides and several footpaths were cut off," my guide says as he lashes the load to one of his mules. "Sometimes the animals are frightened when they can't see the road in front of them and they run back home, leaving everything scattered all over the mountainside." Meanwhile, a band of alpacas moves slowly out of the corral where they had spent the night. The icy wind had frozen the wool on their backs, lending them a comical air.

With my numbed hands wrapped around the tea for warmth, I look out upon a scene of supreme calm and harmony. The silence of the Andes freezes my ears, while the crystalline sky still shows a waxing moon even as the first rays of the sun appeared. Against this panorama, the massive Ausangate, twenty-one thousand feet high, slashes the sky in two, like a gigantic, sharp diamond piercing the firmament. Although this spectacle is familiar to Romario, still he speaks of its beauty. "This is the loveliest mountain in the world," he says, taking a sip of tea and scanning the mountaintop. …

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