Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 4

Guinea-Pig Stew

The Peak of Sorata and Tiquiripaga, Part 4

Tiquiripaga is a straggling village, about half a mile in circumference, consisting of 28 huts and a small church, which is always open; a priest is supposed to make his round periodically, but there had been none now for two years.

The huts belonging to the head man of the village were all built of stone, on a fairly flat piece of grass ground of about 50 acres. Yellow and white buttercups and daisies grew here in wild profusion, and a stream ran down to the valley, getting gradually wider and deeper as it wound its way through the forest below. The water was frozen over at this height, with pools here and there, where the ice was kept broken by the inhabitants for water. Each morning at 7.30 I used to go regularly to one of these pools for my bath.

The little church stood about a quarter of a mile lower down the valley, and was always full of wild flowers, newly gathered and placed about the steps and the altar. I noticed that no traveller ever passed the church without entering to say a prayer. It snowed or hailed several times a day, with spells of sunshine in between, and froze hard each night; the mornings were generally bright and sunny, until about 10 or 11 a.m.; then came hail or snow, and so on, throughout the day. Behind us was the mighty Ylliapo Mountain, with the lofty Peak of Sorata towering in lonely grandeur above all, white with eternal snow. In front was the long path winding down to the tropical forest below. There were many woodcocks, and I got a few. I also saw a good many condors, with their white collars, some of enormous size; I got several long shots at them on the wing with my rifle. I thought I hit one or two, and one we could distinctly see had been struck on the tip of the wing; the head man, Manuel, said it was sure to be found wounded, and we would be able to secure it, but we were not lucky enough to find it. The eagles have to take a short run before they are able to extend their wings and launch themselves into space, and once they get fairly going they appear to sail along high up in the sky without any apparent movement of the wings. It was a wonderful sight to see a dozen or more of these enormous eagles all soaring along high up in the blue sky between the snow-capped mountains above, and the field of enormous yellow buttercups below, with huts of the Indians and the little church all standing out here and there by themselves in lonely spots, and llamas of all colours feeding with the hardy mountain sheep on the hills.

After breakfast, I generally took the gun or rifle, and after entering the church for a few minutes went out and shot a woodcock or a mountain partridge, or else took pot shots at a condor. The days passed pleasantly enough, and when night came I had a good dinner, wrote up my diary, and slept well till daylight.

These were the summer months on this side, during which there is alternate snow and sunshine on the Andes, and heavy rains in the forest. Manuel told me one day that he believed treasure was to be found near the Peak of Sorata, and I heard that also in Sorata; in fact, the Indians nearly all claim that it is so, but nobody has ever yet explored there for it, and residents in Sorata say that the natives would never allow anyone to do so. Mrs. Gunther told me that the Indians came in thousands to watch from below Sir Martin Conway’s party trying to ascend the peak, and some of them told her he would never be allowed to remain at the top for very long, even if he got there. She said they claim that the great Image of the Sun was taken there and buried in a niche underneath the snow not far from the top. She knew the Aymara language well, and I jotted down several sentences and words in that language from her tuition that served me very well.

An American lady, Miss Annie C. Peak, had also tried to climb the mountain, but old Manuel told me she did not get higher than the top of the pass which I crossed.

At the end of the ten days, old Manuel came to me at 8 a.m., just as I was returning from my morning bath, and very civilly said he would not be able to make a start the next day, as owing to the heavy falls of snow on the mountains the llamas had to be driven some distance off to get their fill of grass, so he asked me to wait on some days longer. He told me his younger wife would continue to attend to me, and begged me to pay him in future for the sheep and guinea-pigs in coca leaves, instead of money, to which I, of course, agreed.

Mrs. Manuel was a very good hand at making extremely savoury stews with guinea-pigs, and now and then I got her to make one. Occasionally I gave Manuel a drink of gin and bitters, which he liked, but he never asked for one. Before I had been here many days the Mama of the settlement had been to see me. The oldest woman in the place is always called the Mama, and if you make a good impression on her you get along well with the whole lot. This old woman was over ninety, and looked it.

Exactly twenty-three days after I had arrived here Manuel came to announce that he would be ready to make a move next day at 9 a.m.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 4

The Head Man’s Hut

The Peak of Sorata and Tiquiripaga, Part 3

We got to Tiquiripaga at 3.30 p.m. My Aymaras took us to the house, or rather the hut, of the head man, who kindly gave me a hut and the use of a shed for cooking, for 1/- a day. This man was about 60, tall and active, and was always very civil to me. He had two wives much younger than himself, one of them not at all bad looking; they were both very good to me, and could not have treated me better all the time that I was there with them. The day after I arrived, the old man told me I had better return to Sorata with the mules, as it was a long way and the roads were very rough, and down in the forest it was so hot that none of his tribe was ever able to live there. In fact, he said that when they went down to exchange challonas and salt and flour for cocoa, coca and tobacco, it was always arranged between the parties that at certain times of the year the forest Indians would march up to a meeting place in a clearing in the forest near the River Tipuani, some two days’ march from Gritada, the first hut on the river bank, and there do the exchanging, the mountain men returning to their homes on the Ylliapo Range, and the forest Indians down again to the Tipuani, Beni and other tributaries of the Amazon.

The old man also stated that the path from now on was in places so narrow that nothing larger than a very small mule or llama could travel, and then only in single file. So that I should have to continue on foot for the rest of the journey down, besides which the Indians of Challana would allow nobody to enter their country unless the Cacique ordered them to do so, and nobody had ever been able to enter without his permission. When I told him that Villarde’s sister, Mrs. Villavicencia, had sent in a messenger a fortnight ago, he at once said he could hire me some llamas, and he would go with us himself as far as this side of the Toro River; on the other side, we should find a few families of Indians living in the forest, and a coffee estate owned by a man I met at Sorata, also a man who owned two small mules, which I would very likely be able to hire with Indian carriers to continue the journey as far as the Tipuani River. The proprietor of this coffee estate, a man called Solis, had already given me a letter to his manager, a half-bred Indian. The old Indian arranged to go with me, with one of his wives, and two of his sons, and got me 15 llamas for 7 bols a llama, about 14/- a head, each animal to carry 35lbs., and we arranged never to start before 9 a.m. each day, and to camp every afternoon between 3 and 4 p.m., resting the animals for half an hour at midday. He said the reason he could not allow his llamas to go further down was that it would be too hot for the beasts, and, besides, it was the rainy season in the forest and they would not be able to cross the Toro River; I myself would have to be pulled over on a maroma or wire cable, which is placed there by the Government for the benefit of passengers to and from the Tipuani. He told me if that arrangement would suit me he could start in ten days’ time, not sooner, as his animals had only just returned from La Paz, where they had been with cargo; meanwhile I could have this stone hut for myself, and another smaller one for my man Miguel, and a kitchen for 1/- a day; he would let me have as many fowls as I wanted for 1/- each, guinea-pigs at 1/-, eggs at 1/- a dozen, and sheep at 4/-, the skin to be returned to him; I also used to give him the inside excepting the kidneys: eschalots for 3d. a bunch of twenty, and all the potatoes I wanted at 6d. a measure, which is equal to a big basketful.

I accepted this offer and the next day despatched the hired mules and my saddle mule back to Sorata, after they had eaten a good fill of barley. At 8 a.m. I paid the muleteers their due and gave them a small gratuity each, and some coca leaves to chew on the way. They were profuse with their thanks and gratitude, and said any time I wanted to employ them again they were always ready to come.

The old man called one of his wives, the youngest one, and told her she was to get all I wanted every day, which she always did. He took me to another shed which was full of long dried grass, and said I could use as much of it as I liked to make my bed soft to lie on; so Miguel and I got a whole lot and piled it up three feet high at one end of my hut, and fenced it round with big stones, placing some sheepskins on top, and then my old military valise; this with sheets and blankets made a very comfortable bed. I told Miguel he was to stay in camp all the time to look after everything, and he was to be careful to have lots of hot ashes always ready to keep the fire-hole full in my hut. By keeping this up and leaving the door open all day, it was quite comfortable at night. The first night, before the fire warmed it up, it was 8 degrees below zero.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 4

Atahualpa’s Ransom

The Peak of Sorata and Tiquiripaga, Part 2

There are two paths over the mountains, one by a pass of 16,000ft., and the other by one of 17,000ft. I chose the latter, for the reason that it was quite close to the Peak of Sorata; in fact, not many yards from the top of this pass. To the left, on the way up, was a rough, natural kind of shelter, where Sir Martin Conway had made his last camp on his expedition to try to reach the summit of Sorata.

In his report, Sir Martin said that he could not manage to get to the top, and he did not think anybody ever had, and thought it doubtful if anybody ever would. He estimated the height of the mountain at 23,500ft., and based his opinion on the fact that he was carrying the same instruments as he had used in his successful climb to the top of Aconcagua, when he found the height to be 22,500ft. Going up Sorata, his instruments ceased to mark, and he calculated there was still another 1,000ft. to go.

Yet another reason for my taking this pass and climbing the extra 1,000ft. was that, not far from the top at 16,200ft. by the aneroid, a little way off to the right in a hollow, lies a small lake where tradition says, and the Indians firmly believe, that some of the great Inca treasure was thrown when Pizarro had Atahualpa murdered.

We passed this small lake at about 11 a.m. I had been told that about two years previously a Company had proposed to drain this lake, which could easily be done with the labour of Aymara Indians and the necessary provisions. The head of the Company offered the Government a deposit of £20,000 as a guarantee that they meant business, which the Government was to return after they had let out the water, whether there was anything there or not; whatever they discovered at the bottom was to be divided between themselves and the Government. The authorities thought the proposition a very good one, but the reason it was never undertaken before was that they feared a rising of the vast Indian population would take place; indeed, it might have caused a general rising of the Indians throughout America, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, and the biggest massacre the world has ever seen, and this was why they refused consent. Evidently, many people think there is truth in the legend that some of the lost Inca treasure is still in existence. It is also a well authenticated fact that some few years ago an American Company had the idea of looking for the immense Inca chain, formed of links of gold, of 1 kilo each, which was to have been part of Atahualpa’s ransom. It is believed by many that the chain was cast into the Lake Titicaca, near the sacred Island of Tia Guanaco. They eventually came to the conclusion that the water was far too deep, and no proposition was ever made. Up to now this chain and nearly all the treasure of the Inca still remains hidden.

On the top of the pass is a cairn of stones, placed there by the Indians to mark the spot. On the way up we passed, at different places, a lonely grave of stones and a wooden cross, showing where some poor chap had passed away. Nearly all the morning the weather was a constant succession of bitterly cold wind and hail, and then a spell of hot sunshine. Often I found it too steep in places for my mule to carry me, and then I removed my thick poncho and walked. I noticed that during the constant blizzards my Aymaras, to prevent frostbite, put on their vicuña face protectors, which just left holes for eyes, nostrils and mouth. I always made my man put on his, and I did the same.

On the top and for a thousand feet before getting there, nothing was to be seen but snow. There was no vegetation of any sort, and not a single bush or bird. About half an hour after leaving the shepherds’ hut in the morning, I shot a female condor eagle with my large Winchester rifle, but, although it was a fine, large specimen, I was forced to leave it behind, because there was really no room on the cargo mules to carry it. I wanted to wait an hour or more to skin it, but the Indians said the delay of nearly two hours might be dangerous at this height and at this season of the year, and we might yet be caught in a blinding snowstorm and get benighted; if we had been returning now, and going downhill to the shepherds’ hut, they said they would have been able to carry it down between them. It was a great pity.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 4

Red Flags and White Flags

The Peak of Sorata and Tiquiripaga, Part 1

The day after Christmas we left Sorata, I on my sturdy saddle mule, two Indians of the Aymara breed, with three other mules I hired for carrying the provisions and baggage, and my man Miguel, who walked.

The Peak of Sorata. Illustration from Adventures in Bolivia.

The day was fine, with a lovely blue sky, and as we marched up the long steep Ylliapo Mountain we could see the magnificent Peak of Sorata in the distance. Before we started, Mrs. Gunther had said to me: “I shall expect to see you back to-morrow night; for when you see the awful climb ahead, and find that the mules will not be able to continue the journey, I am convinced you will have to turn back.” The path was fairly good, but only wide enough for us to go in Indian file; the cargo animals walked in front and the two Indians and myself brought up the rear. We were now passing through a forest of small trees and bushes, profusely covered with bright flowers indigenous to the temperate zone, such as roses, daisies, buttercups and fuchsias. The luxuriant bushes and geraniums and fuchsias were especially fine. Every now and then we met Aymaras with troops of llamas coming down the slope, each with their load of 50lbs. When we passed, the Indians always stopped their llamas and cornered them in any available space to allow us to go by, and they one and all bid us a very civil good day. I have always been given to understand that when they greet one it is a sure sign that they are of a friendly disposition, but when they pass without paying any attention it is not a good sign, and means that you should proceed with care.

It is also common knowledge that when travellers pass through a native village and find all the doors shut, it means, “Go on, don’t stop here, we wish to have nothing to do with you,” and it is then prudent to go on further. This I have proved several times, as when I have pulled up at any of these huts, which often have some one inside although they are shut up, and asked them to sell me some barley for the animals or fowls, the reply has always been: “No, we have nothing,” in spite of the fowls I saw running about, and big stacks of barley straw piled up everywhere.

I have often heard and read of prospectors passing these habitations, who have received that reply, and nevertheless proceed to knock over a few fowls and help themselves to the amount of barley straw they need, leaving payment at the usual current rate on the doorstep; but this, in my opinion, is not at all a good plan. Some travellers have been known not to leave any payment at all, and that has occasionally led to trouble. If a village is found with no inhabitants to be seen, but with some of the doors open, it means: “We are willing to sell you what you want, if we have it, but prefer you to camp outside our village.” When doors are open, and a few men and women are about, it signifies: “We are ready to sell you what you want, and you are cordially welcome to stop in the village as long as you like.” Then the usual thing is to ask for an empty hut, which is willingly offered, generally one of the best they have got, for one shilling a day, and you get another corral and shelter for your mules and men for another shilling. I have nearly always been fortunate in finding the latter, and have sometimes stayed like this for months on end in a village while prospecting and examining old mines close by.

After marching for about three hours, we had occasional hailstorms, but they did not last for more than half an hour or so, and it was quickly fine again. These hailstorms marked the beginning of the rains in the forests and snow and hail in the mountains on this side. Up to about 11,000ft. we passed a few stray huts made of stone. Sometimes I saw a red flag flying on a long pole beside a hut, which means that chicha, a refreshing drink made from corn, is to be had there. At another would be a white flag, which is meant to show travellers that fresh meat could be bought there. After 12,000ft. to 13,000ft. it got very cold, and no other hut was to be seen except one or two isolated huts belonging to Indian shepherds tending sheep or llamas.

At 5 p.m. we reached a height of 15,000ft. (by my aneroid). The sun had disappeared behind the mountain, and it was getting dark, so we decided to stop. I gave the Aymara shepherds a drink of rum each, and they hired a stone hut for my use, another smaller one for the men and the cooking, and a corral for the mules, for 2/-, the usual price for accommodation in these parts. I exchanged some coca and matches for some eschalots, potatoes and eggs; I make it a rule never to trade strong drink with the natives anywhere, and it would be a good thing if all South America would do the same as Guiana does, that is, prohibit the sale of rum to the Indians.

The mules had carried their own fodder for the day’s journey, as we knew that none was to be had on the way. There was plenty of long, coarse grass a little way down the mountain, and the careful Indians took them there to feed for two hours as soon as they got the gear off, while Miguel and I prepared the supper. The thermometer registered 6 below zero inside the hut, at 8 p.m., but that was soon altered when I had a lot of embers brought in and the door well closed.

Next morning, after a cold bath and a good breakfast, I started off at 9.30 a.m.