It has been a while since I have been able to do any traveling and I must admit, I’ve been getting pretty antsy. I was toying with the idea of seeing the holy men in India, touring the temples of Southeast Asia or taking a voyage down to South America. A relatively near continent that I had yet to touch. That's when I fell upon Peru. A country I knew basically nothing about but had imagined being an early explorer there when I was a child, playing archeologist with my sister. Fedora, bullwhip and all.
I began doing research. Reaching out to people who had been there and gotten off the beaten path and explored beyond the novelties and postcard sights. Through Instagram, I had made the acquaintance of a very talented photographer named Bruna who told me of a trip she had taken years ago with a couple of anthropologists, high into the Andes to study a community said to have descended directly from the Incan people. I had never heard of any such place so I did a little digging and eventually found a guide who could lead me there and act as a translator.
It was a days journey from the city of Cusco, to get to Hatun Q’ero. The mountain roads were narrow, rocky and usually at the edge of a massive cliff. We passed through towns so small, I couldn’t imagine you would find them on a map.
Narrow ravines turned to rolling hills, which then turned to snow capped peaks. An incredibly diverse landscape which mirrored the social diversity of the country. The slow-paced mountain villages seemed a different world from the busy hustle of Lima, the capital city. When we arrived on the pass overlooking the village of Chuwa Chuwa, our guide Miguel recommended we get out and walk, to take in the scenery.
We were well above the tree line and all you could see was mountains covered in Llamas. As we walked down the mountain, horses in tow, Miguel began explaining local folklore and legends. Giving us a history of the area and the people. He told us stories of the Spanish invaders, of cataclysmic events and prophecies. It’s said that the originator of the Inka, Inkarri came from this place.
We spent our first night in Chuwa Chuwa, a small town of modest houses, some of stone and some of more modern materials that were transported in. There was one small school as well but only a few inhabitants. Most of the Q’ero children were in the mountains helping their families farm. After setting up camp we went over the next days itinerary as we ate dinner and we all turned in for the night. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next morning myself and the guide both had splitting headaches from the altitude, so we packed up quickly and began descending down the mountain toward our destination.
As we trekked along, a dense fog began to roll in as we passed ancient huts and the occasional Llama herder traveling up or down toward whichever village they were headed to that day. The people were all quite friendly and seemed slightly intrigued as they passed us by.
After several hours our guide took a turn suddenly off the path, up the hill through the vegetation, and fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. “We’re here,” Andres called back, as a village began to mysteriously emerge from the fog.
It was the season for planting potatoes and the people were hard at work. Smoke filled the air from small mounds of burning vegetation littered across terraced fields. We were greeted with friendly smiles, as well as a faint hint of puzzlement. There have been a number of visitors to the village over the years. Still, not many outsiders came this way.
We set up camp outside Andres’ home on a grassy knoll overlooking the village and the jungle below. Andres is what is known among the Q’ero as a Paqo, or practitioner of the old ways. A sort of priest. The Paqos of Hatun Q’ero who act as the community’s spiritual leaders and knowledge keepers are becoming fewer with the passing of time. Some of the younger generations are no longer interested in their ancestor's way of life as the allure of making money in the mining industry seems more appealing.
We explored the village while the cook prepared lunch. Passing through yards full of busy villagers picking away at the dirt. Big surprised smiles followed by friendly waves greeted us at every sight. We were taken to the school which was normally inhabited by up to thirty children, but today had only five.
There were solar panels on some of the huts with cables leading to others, and a few buildings such as the school and a single outhouse that were more modern though shabby. Indicating the little bit of government aid the village had received in the past. The kids were full of energy as we were given a tour of the school. Old textbooks filled the shelves and recent lessons were written on the chalkboard. It felt like a lively and well-used facility. We chatted with the teacher while the kids ran around, using our visit as a perfect excuse to play like maniacs. Everyone wore sandals up here, which seemed mind-blowing as it was freezing cold in the mornings and at night. The kids didn’t seem bothered by it one bit. We made our way up to Andres’ hut to begin preparations for the ceremony that would take place that night. Its called a “Pago” and its an offering consisting of little effigies, sweets and certain reagents such as clamshells and llama fat. The purpose is to give something back to the earth that's provided much for the Qeros. As a show of good faith, we brought a large supply of sugar cane spirits (moonshine) and coca leaves.
In Inka culture, coca leaves are sacred and play a vital role both in day-to-day life and in rituals. Paqos use them to communicate with the Apus, Mountain deities. The ceremony was held in the dark recesses of Andres’ hut.
We all gathered around him while he recited incantations and prayers and offered coca leaves to one another. The moonshine flowed generously. We exchanged thanks and appreciation while pouring ourselves a shot into a single metal cup that was passed around, and as the night progressed, I had to sneakily pour less and less. I clearly didn’t have the constitution to keep up with these guys. By the time midnight rolled around and Andres and Francisco didn’t appear to be slowing down, I decided to call it quits and retired into my tent, wishing I could keep the party going but I knew I had to take photos tomorrow and I didn’t want to be completely useless. To my astonishment, I was woken up at the crack of dawn by the sound of picks hitting the earth. Somehow despite getting completely hammered the night before, our Q’ero hosts were hard at work. Even I ended up getting roped into some manual labor for a few solid hours.
The remoteness of this place was only marred by the very obvious presence of mining interests in the area.
There weren’t many Q’eros actually in the village because the men had all traveled to Cusco to appeal to the local government to fight for the rights to their ancestral land. There never used to be fences or any kind of clear boundary in Q’ero territory until recent years. Since foreign and domestic mining ventures began taking interest in the surrounding areas, people began putting up fences around what they considered “their” land so as to parcel it off to the highest bidder. Our hosts were a light-hearted and well-humored bunch, but there was a poignancy in the air. The winds of change are blowing in this place.