Adventures in Peru, Chapter 17

A String on the Toe

Gold, Silver, Emeralds, and Pearls, Part 3

Ayacucho, one of the most ancient cities of Peru, is noted for its jewellers and fine silver-smiths. These craftsmen hold closely to the traditions handed down by their forefathers, and turn out work that is worthy of comparison with that of Inca days. Altogether there are about seventy of these art workers located in or around Ayacucho. I have compared specimens of their handiwork with ancient filigree ornaments unearthed at Pachacamaca and Tia Huanaca, and can distinguish very little falling off in design or execution. Lord Brassey, when he visited Peru on his yacht, the Sunbeam, in company with Lady Brassey, sent an emissary to purchase jewellery here. I’m told he laid out £5000.

Ayacucho also used to be noted for its white alpaca, and vicuña carosses, or rugs. A great many ruins, Inca and Huanca, and twenty-four churches, testify to its importance in days gone by.

There are two ways of getting to this fascinating place. My favourite route is by way of Pisco, Ica, and Huancavilla, muling it all the way, in the finest atmosphere in the world and through some of the sublimest scenery. The easiest way to Ayacucho is to rail it from Lima to Huancayo (10,000 ft.). That takes two days more or less. The remainder of the journey occupies three or four days on mule-back.

Among the many rich gold mines in Peru, Amanca (17,000 ft.) is notable as being the highest in the world, worked by the hydraulic method. Men working and prospecting in the neighbourhood, showed me lots of quartz with traces of gold in it. I sent samples to M. M. Penny, but just then he was all for tin, so there was nothing doing. The conduits and sluices here were constructed of stone when the Spaniards governed the country. At that time much gold was washed out and sent to Spain by the Viceroy, who had 6000 men employed, washing and digging out gravel. Further on, the Poto River runs through soil that is very auriferous.

In dealing with Indians one has to be careful, for some of them are not above mixing particles of brass with the gold dust. Round about Limbani Indian labour is plentiful and cheap. The men will show one all the likely places, and work for 4s. per day, out of which 2s. is deducted by the employer for the food consumed (mostly Irish stew) and for other incidental expenses.

To get to Amanca one has to leave the train at Crucero Alto (14,666 ft.), on the Arequipa-Puno line; and travel thence on mule-back over the High Plateau. Here sheep and llama are very plentiful. A man I knew, of the name of Creighton, once visited this place, staying with the son of a wealthy man, who had been sent there out of the way by his father, to avoid the consequences of having accidentally killed a man in a brawl. One can also reach this place from Tirapata (12,731 ft.), using mules as the media.

The Indians secure gold by laying a floor of loose stone edgeways. This they flood, and then wash out the gravelly deposit left by the water. I prefer my own method of dealing with the gravel. I used to pan it out in a basin with a little quicksilver. Whatever sticks to that is pure gold.

When I was on my way home to visit my people, and see Mariano Penny at his residence in Aberdeenshire, a Scot gave me some rich samples, which he had taken from the Amanca mine. I tried to induce Penny to let me put in a season with Creighton at Amanca, but found him more enamoured of tin than ever. About this time it had appreciated in value a good deal, hence, I suppose, he thought it more profitable to send me to locate mines in Bolivia.

At Poto, according to Creighton, the thermometer often registers 104 degrees in the sun and 37 in the shade. I can quite believe that. As a matter of fact, at the foot of the Cerro Volcan and Cerro San Pedro in the Great Atacama desert, the markings, for ten consecutive days, ranged from 80 to 83 degrees in the sun, and from 30 to 40 in the shade. I used to attach a string to a toe of my Indian servant, so that I might rouse him at 7 a.m., and I generally found the temperature then well below zero. One of the inspectors of the Antofagasta and Bolivia line said I was lucky, as six weeks before I arrived upon the scene, the temperature at 7 a.m. was 16 degrees below zero, and so continued at that hour for fifteen days on end. I was jolly glad to have avoided that experience.