Part One: San Pedro de Casta (LONG READ)

Part One: San Pedro de Casta (LONG READ)

Colin Robinson

A travel story enriched with historical and cultural understandings that every “woke” traveler will want to read.

'œPare! pare! pare!' shouts the teenager in front of our rickety micro bus. Lit up by the headlights in front of a dark and foggy abyss, the sweat on his skin glistens despite the cool night air. He's motioning vigorously for the driver to 'œstop! stop! stop!'

It's 9 pm and we're clinging to the edge of a crumbling mountain road high in the central Andes, trying to pass by another bus heading the opposite direction. Etched into the near vertical hillside, the 'œroad' is barely a lane and a half wide. Small white crosses cling to the bends. Why had I not noticed these on the way up? The teen is focused on the front left tire, which is mere inches from dropping off the edge. The other bus crawls forward on the inside of the turn, accelerating, and braking, its diesel engine barking loudly. The people inside rock forward in unison with the abrupt gas-brake pedal mashing of their driver.

With barely a hand's width between my window and theirs, there's less space between us than if we were sitting at a cafe table together. The smell of nerves and diesel fumes. Wiping away the condensation on my window, I make eye contact with a girl in the other bus; shadows move across her palpably tense expression. But I don't feel bad for her. She's on the inside of the road. In my bus, I hear a guy a few seats behind me puke. Christ.

The pass is finally complete. A few people on my bus are marking the sign of the cross on their foreheads, shoulders, and chest, muttering catholic expressions. The teenage 'œcliffside negotiator' leaps back in through the door with the energy of someone who's just landed an awesome stunt on a skateboard or something like that. A huge grin on his face, he talks loudly to a few of his friends on the bus. 'œWe were this close!' he exclaims in Spanish, holding up his index finger and thumb for everyone to see. Real reassuring. As we begin rolling down the road's steep incline back home towards Lima, he continues, 'œif we went over the edge, we wouldn't stop falling until Sunday!' It's Friday night.

I'd spent the last two days with a friend exploring the Marcahuasi plateau and the nearest town, San Pedro de Castas, population 500. The cluster of homes clings to the mountainside nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, and way off the trodden gringo trail to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Though it's only four hours away from Lima by a series of rickety combis, it felt worlds apart, culturally and geographically.


The peaceful ascent to San Pedro de Casta. (Photo: Colin Robinson)

Forty-eight hours earlier on the way up, I'd gawked and snapped photos with shameless enthusiasm. Unlike the misty late night descent, we made the trip up the mountain in the early morning, and we didn't have to worry about brakes failing. Our bus that morning was run by the town of San Pedro, so it was full of locals; for them, this was simply the weekly commute, so naturally, they weren't so giddily reactive to the views as I was. A woman with two younger children laughed at me and offered me her seat next to the window, telling me I could get better photos if I put my camera outside the dusty windows. Grateful, I swapped seats with her and for the rest of the voyage, I chatted with her to the best of my limited ability. She told me her name was Elena and that her family lived in San Pedro. She divided her time between her hometown, high in a remote lush alpine valley, and Lima, the arid metropolis in the rain shadow of the Andes.


The line halfway up the mountain is the road… (Photo: Colin Robinson)

We continued climbing higher, higher. The valleys were a verdant paradise compared to the sun-bleached desert coast where I have been living and working. Long grasses, flowering shrubs, leafy trees, plump succulents all clung to the walls of the high alpine meadows. Subtle ridges and pathways marked the hillsides, gently massaged into the landscape over millennia (yes, millennia) of livestock grazing, of permaculture. The area had been farmed like this for the last 3,000 years more or less, Elena told me. At the end of the bus ride, she gave me her phone number and an invitation to come visit her and her family at their home later that afternoon.


High alpine valley, 7am. (Photo: Colin Robinson)

According to the Christian tradition, San Pedro, or Saint Peter, controls heaven’s pearly gates. I don’t know the actual intention of the town’s colonial name, but the steep and lofty cliffs, the soft inland murmur of the alpine streams, the quiet of the sky, all seemed to radiate with an unearthly type of peace. Additionally, there have been more than a few deaths in recent years as a result of carelessness near the precipices. After exploring the town and checking into our very rustic hotel, the clouds crawled up the mountain faces from the valley, soaking in the entire valley, the town engulfed in an eerie mist. It wasn't that textureless fog we're used to seeing in Lima. It was like smoke, with puffs and swirls, floating quickly past doorways, rolling over the backs of the donkeys patiently waiting at their tethers in yards and on street corners. A rooster crowed somewhere. I was standing on the edge of a cliff with my friend Carolina, all white, all around us. It felt surreal, like floating in purgatory.


Nothing to do, nothing to make, nothing to say, nothing to think, nothing to worry about. (Photo: Colin Robinson)

“The friends on the steps were laughing, joking, counting flowers into bouquets in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. Enjoying the ancient comforts of companionship. They were farmers, mostly. The brightly colored skirts, long braided hair, and tall hats were characteristic garb of the Andean people.”

People of the town came and went along the narrow cobbled streets, between ancient houses. The cool air smelled of flowers and manure and tobacco. A group of 10 women and men sat together on some steps, smoking and chewing coca leaves. Andean people call chewing coca, 'œchacchar,' and the act is loaded with cultural meaning, not to mention notably high concentrations of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins, proteins, and other goodness making up this natural super-supplement. Coca has been an Andean staple for thousands of years; the narcotic alkaloid used to make cocaine was only extracted from the leaf, by a white scientist in Germany, in 1898.

“I was ignorant, and still am, but at least I'm learning how little I know.”

The friends on the steps were laughing, joking, counting flowers into bouquets in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. Enjoying the ancient comforts of companionship. They were farmers, mostly. The brightly colored skirts, long braided hair, and tall hats were characteristic garb of the Andean people. I said to Carolina, 'œIt's like a national geographic magazine'¦ they probably don't know and don't care about this week's terrorist attacks in Belgium, about the terrifying rise of Trump's right wing populism. ' But then I caught myself'¦ what the hell was I talking about? I sounded like an elitist asshole. They were not exotic, and they were probably not living in removed ignorant bliss. I was the damn exotic one. I was ignorant, and still am, but at least I'm learning how little I know.

To Continue Reading Please Click Here.

_Colin is a Canadian writer, surfer, and social innovation enthusiast. Most recently, he helped start a social project called EqwipHUBS in Lima, which provides personal and professional development training for youth in Lima Norte. He has travelled extensively throughout Peru's diverse coastal, mountain and jungle regions and his favourite Peruvian dishes are Ceviche and Tacu Tacu. Check out more of Colin's writing on his personal website

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