The Valley of Marvels
Vicuñas should always be seen as one sees them at four thousand meters of altitude behind the volcanos which guard Arequipa, in the National Reserve of Aguada Blanca. At liberty, in their natural habitat, the animals are more authentic than behind the bars of zoos, more beautiful than when they are immobilized in photographs. Agile, silky and delicate, the vicuñas on the pampa of Cahahuas seem to shed their proverbial timidity.
Four volcanos, Misti, Chachani, Pichu Pichu and Ubinas, form the western boundary of their dominion. The eastern is a vertiginous abyss in which a river courses. It waters a corner of Peru full of marvels: the Colca Valley.
Those of us who live immersed in the ugliness of Lima sometimes forget the beautiful things of Peru. One of them is this southern valley, to the north-west of Arequipa, at which one arrives after scrambling over the peaks of the Andes and crossing the mesa of the vicuña from one end to the other.
Archeological remains of the Collaguas and the Incas are scattered over the whole valley. Apparently the latter subjugated the area for only a short time. A legend says that the Inca Mayta Cápac took a fancy to a girl of the region and carried her off to Cusco where he married her.
They were also industrious and prosperous. A good part of the landscape all along the valley was created thanks to their diligence and imagination. Neither in Cusco nor in any other region have 1 seen terraces which ascend and descend the hills with the same defiance of the law of gravity. At some points it is as if the whole mountain, by some miraculous geological chance, had contorted and contracted so that the waters of the river and the slender streams into which the snowy peaks melt might make fertil their every contour, from head to foot.
The Spanish occupied the valley in 1540, the year in which Gonzalo Pizarro established the District of Collaguas. But it was the viceroy Toledo who, by ordering that the dispersed populations of peasants be concentrated in settlements, gave the region the human profile which it has retained until our days. As a consequence of the ordinances of Toledo fourteen villages were established. They are still there, only a little less than intact, although horrible corregated zinc has replaced some of the ancestral straw roofs on some of the dwellings of the more prosperous families (to speak of prosperity here, however, always seems a little obscene).
The almost total isolation in which these fourteen villages lived from colonial times until the beginning of the Majes irrigation project has preserved their original appearance. There they are with their main plazas, their streets laid out in a straight line, their churches with the high towers which can be seen from a great distance. And there are their lordly and euphonic names: Cabanaconde, Pinchollo, Maca, Chivay, Achoma, Yanque, Tuti. Although some have a coating of whitewash, the majority of the churches show the naked stones of their structure: the sun turns them golden at midday and reddens them in the evening; their bell towers are still the pinnacles of the area, from which the fields can be watched. They tell me that they have been less plundered than the churches of the villages of Cusco, Puno or Ayacucho; that the retables, altars, pulpits, frescos and paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries are still there. I was only able to visit the interior of the little church of Maca, which has, in effect, an intriguing altar and some interesting oils.
The secret of the conservation of these interiors is, probably, their sacristans, truculent, incorruptible men who let no one cross their thresholds except neighbors and people they knew. The priest of Cabanaconde denied me entrance with the argument that in order to visit the church one had to have written permission from the archbishop, neither more nor less than what is necessary to stick your nose in a convent cloister. When 1 tried to argue he warned me that no stranger entered his church because there were lots of thieves running loose. The sacristan of Yanque, on the other hand, slyer and more irrefutable, got rid of me by saying, 1 never open the church when I'm drunk." (He was.)
The villages seem to be very near each other, but that is not true. It is an illusion caused by the purity of the atmosphere which shortens distances and clearly sets off men and things. The sensation this causes to one coming from the coast where the fogs and mists give the the landscape a phantom look, is truly magical. Nature is a continual presence here, closer and more luculent. Viscachas, partridges and an occasional deer cross the paths between the villages, and bands of parrots chatter in the eucaliptus trees.
As one descends, the valley narrows until at three thousand meters of altitude it becomes the Colca Canyon. This is the main dish of the excursion, the dramatic moment. From a little rocky point which opens onto the void, one sees the river a thousand meters below between double rock walls, leaping and writhing over obstacles as it rushes to meet the Majes with which it will flow on to finally disappear in the coastal sands. The spectacle is really impressive. And to make it perfect, a condor soars through the sky above the roaring precipice -a black spot beneath the shining sun- looking for carrion.
Another marvel of the Colca is Mother Antonia. She lives with two other "gringuitas" like herself -Mother Mariella and Mother Rosemarie- in what was the sacristy of the church of Yanque, some rooms of glacial stone which the three little Maryknoll nuns warm with their kindness and good humor. Mother Mariella is a doctor and the other two sometimes work as nurses. They also act as teachers and social assistants. But really they are peasants who live on what they can produce on their piece of land which lies next to the church. It is enough to see their hands and feet to realize how rough it is to work the land under the conditions prevailing in the Colca, and to understand to what extent these women have become integrated into the society in which they live.
Once a month they publish a mimeographed bulletin with church news, sanitary and agricultural information and information for artisans, which they sell for ten soles" (a Peruvian coin), Mother Antonia has been in Yanque for 12 years. She learned Quechua here. Before, she lived five years among the peasants of Puno who taught her Aymara. And before that she lived another five among the poor of Lima, with whom she perfected her Spanish. What winds brought this New Yorker from the Bronx to Peru? Good winds, there is no doubt. To speak with her, to listen to her relate anecdotes, is pure delight. As there are no police in Yanque it sometimes falls on Mother Antonia to fill the roll and, for example, confront the bandits of the village.
Mario Vargas Llosa